A new economics working paper analyzes confidential data from an unnamed elite university and reaches this perhaps unsurprising conclusion:
We find that the presence of children [in the household] increases an alumnus’s giving, that giving drops off after the admissions decision, and that the decline is far greater when the child is rejected. In short, alumni giving varies systematically with the age and admissions status of their children. This child-cycle of alumni giving is consistent with the hypothesis that some donations are made in the hope of a reciprocal benefit.
Or, as Slate summarizes the results in somewhat more vernacular terms:
At about age 14, as mom and dad see their kid’s algebra and composition grades, they decide whether he or she will apply to the alma mater. If they decide against, then they need not give extra to grease his way in. But if the kid is legacy material, then the parents might feel a need to show some generosity to Anon U.
I am pretty sure that some admissions decisions are influenced to some extent by parental donations. But the authors of the paper take pains to point out that the reality of this influence (which would be hard to pin down anyway) is not necessarily relevant, so long as the alumni parents believe it exists:
An interesting feature of this phenomenon is that the institution makes no promise of reciprocity whatsoever. True, children of Anon U alumni have a higher rate of acceptance than other students, but this does not prove that having a parent who made donations in the past increases a child’s likelihood of admission. Nevertheless, the view that reciprocity exists is widespread. [snip] We know of no statistical evidence on whether alumni donations at any university affect admissions probabilities for their children, and if so, how much. For our purposes, the key insight is that generating the child-cycle of alumni giving requires only the perception of reciprocity.
There is no apparent reason to think this data is not typical of other elite colleges. But what about law schools? How much does the perception that Mommy and Daddy’s donations help with admissions translate to law school admission? More controversial question: how close is that perception to reality? Most controversial question: how much do law school deans encourage the perception, regardless of the reality, and is that problematic?